Re-enacting the past: living-history groups

By Joanna Egan 28 August 2012
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Historical re-enactment festivals are more popular than ever. Take a photographic tour of one of Australia’s largest.

A RECORD-NUMBER of history enthusiasts flocked to Caboolture, on the Queensland Sunshine Coast, in July 2012 to attend Australia’s largest living history festival, the week-long Abbey Museum Medieval Festival.

More than 37,300 people, many clad in medieval robes, shining armour or hand-sewn dresses, came together on the grounds of the historic Abbey Museum to share medieval banquets, compete in jousting tournaments and archery competitions, practise the art of falconry, attend a masquerade ball and generally pay homage to a time long past.

Living-history groups began to emerge in Australia in about the 1970s. Since then, increasing numbers of re-enactors have hosted historic parades, pageants and re-enactments, and brought history to life at public commemorations of past events.

Today, many living-history events take place in Australia annually and hundreds of groups and societies are involved in this craft. They strive to recreate different periods of world history as accurately as possible.

Historical re-enactments: ensuring accuracy

“Historical research comes into it to help us maintain a level of historical accuracy,” says historian Brian Rough, who co-ordinates History Alive (pictured in the gallery that accompanies this story), Australia’s largest multi-period, living-history festival.

“It depends on the period that you’re into as to how readily available that information is or how easy it is to go out and research it,” adds Brian, who is also the president of the Queensland Living History Federation, one of Australia’s largest historical re-enactment organisations.

Brian has performed military re-enactment for nearly 30 years, most recently in a group that recreates the life and times of the Queensland Scottish Volunteer Corps, which was formed in Brisbane in the late 1880s.

Combat, costume and love of history

“For my period of time, the data is there, you’ve just got to go out and look for it,” he says. “For us, it involves primary archival work mostly, but for the ancient Roman groups, that’s a touch harder to do, although there’s massive archaeological record that they can draw from.”

Brian explains that many people are drawn to historical re-enactment because it allows them to engage in combat or costuming, but others, like him, do it because they just love history.

“There’s quite a subculture of historical re-enactment in Australia,” he says. “For a lot of people, it’s about taking off your business suit at the end of the day, strapping on a suit of armour and going out to tell a story. Hopefully it’s an accurate story, and if it makes someone else interested in history and they go to a book, all the better.”

Read the full story in issue 110 (Sep/Oct) of the Australian Geographic journal.